The Paradoxes of “This Little Babe”

By | December 24, 2014

Maratta-Holy Night-c1689Many of you may be familiar with the great choral work “This Little Babe” from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. The driving rhythm, the compelling tune with its unique canonic treatment, and the dramatic shift at the very end from a minor key to its parallel major all make for a memorable and powerful setting of the text (click here for a video).

The text explores the paradoxes that came with the birth of Christ, with God becoming man and enacting His plan of salvation. The text comes from a poem entitled “New Heaven, New War” by Robert Southwell (c. 1561-95), a Jesuit priest in post-Reformation England. Below you will find the entire poem. The last four stanzas are the ones Britten used for “This Little Babe.”

Wishing you God’s richest blessings on your Christmas celebrations!

New Heaven, New War

Come to your heaven, you heavenly choirs!
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwelling to your God,
A stall is now His best abode;
Sith men their homage do deny,
Come, angels, all their fault supply.

His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, seraphim, in lieu of fire;
This little ark no cover hath,
Let cherubs’ wings his body swath;
Come, Raphael, this babe must eat,
Provide our little Tobie meat.

Let Gabriel be now his groom,
That first took up his earthly room;
Let Michael stand in his defence,
Whom love hath link’d to feeble sense;
Let Graces rock when He doth cry,
Let angels sing His lullaby.

The same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your king a mortal wight,
His borrowed weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies,
That is your bliss above the skies.

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield,
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, haystalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He his muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight;
Within His crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from the heavenly boy.

Father Robert Southwell (c. 1561-95)

N.B. The spelling in this poem has been updated to reflect modern English. For Southwell’s original text, click here.